Raphael House: A Place of Welcome

By Maria Nash

Raphael House --- a place of welcome for homeless families in San Francisco --- was founded in 1971 by a community in which all members dedicated themselves to Christ with vows of poverty, humility, chastity, obedience and purity. In 1988 the community embraced Orthodox Christianity and ten years later joined the canonical Orthodox Church. Our base is a former hospital built in 1908.

What is Raphael House? It is meals made from scratch. It is a lot of songs. It is the absence of television --- but one video a week for the parents, and one for the children. It is arts and crafts for the adults led by Sue.

Raphael House is prayers in the morning. It is Divine Liturgy in the chapel. It is people who love God in the Orthodox Church and people who love God in other churches or in no church at all. It is prayer for others. It is prayer alone.

Raphael House is love and understanding. It is rules and structure. It is arts and crafts for the children. It is the after-school program. It is children's smiling faces. It is children running, yelling and playing on the roof. It is babies screaming in the dining room. It is field trips for the children to see the elephant seals at Ano Nuevo.

Raphael House is order and beauty. It is three-month reviews. It is casework. It is a family's plan to save money and find a home. It is the budgeting workshop. It is quick greetings in the hallways. It is being on the dish team after a meal for 65.

Raphael House is all the brothers and sisters who volunteered their love and their lives there. It is many people doing many small things for other people. It is writing thank-you letters to donors. It is writing grant proposals. It is giving tours to our many visitors. It is writing and mailing newsletters.

Raphael House is frustration and sadness followed by hope and progress. It is training volunteers. It is making small steps and growing. It is a child getting a certificate from their school for excellence in math. It is child development classes. It is the annual children's art exhibit --- new beautiful art adorning the halls. It is St. Nicholas' helper visiting the children on St. Nicholas Day and telling them about one thing they do really well, and one thing that could use improvement.

Raphael House is live-in staff getting married. It is live-in staff moms having babies. It is live-in staff going off to seminary --- and coming back. It is live-in staff going to all the various Orthodox churches in the city. It is having a conversation with a neighborhood senior. It is finding a treasure in the thrift store. It is hosting seniors for Christmas brunch and Thanksgiving dinners.

Raphael House is volunteers coming to cook dinner. It is friends bringing homegrown food and flowers to us every week during the spring and summer from Sonoma County. It is board meetings.

Raphael House is families moving in and families moving out. It is families coming back and volunteering. It is families coming back to celebrate July 4th with us in Golden Gate Park. It is family members joining the staff. It is resident moms having babies. It is family members doing chores.

Raphael House is resident moms sewing Christmas stockings for each of their children.

Raphael House is bedtime stories and angel candle processions each night for the small children.

Raphael House is opening the front door.

These are glimpses of what combines to make Raphael House and how it has developed to serve the parents and children who come to us for shelter and help -- from social work and arts and crafts, to the feeling of safety that the live-in staff brings. Crisis is met by beauty and order and the predictable structure of the day, week and year that is marked by celebrations of holy days and seasons.

In contrast to the stereotypical image of a homeless shelter as a cot-lined warehouse, many people are amazed when they see what a welcoming, clean and orderly place Raphael House is. The calming environment combined with well-honed programs proves a strong antidote to a family's crisis situation.

Staying with us stay an average of three months, but some six months, and even a year, most are referred by a local agency that serves homeless families. The atmosphere tends to soften their faces and their hearts. In the brief time families live with us, we become a community, sharing in meals and daily chores.

Although they are welcome, family members do not usually participate in our prayer services. While maintaining membership in several of the Orthodox Churches in San Francisco, live-in staff and volunteers have a daily schedule of prayer, with the celebration of the Divine Liturgy twice monthly.

On a recent morning at breakfast time, Santa Lucia came to visit. Wearing a long white dress and crowned with a wreath of pine bows and lit candles, she processed through the house handing out freshly made buns. A small band followed behind her singing:

Night goes on silent steps, round house and cottage,

O'er the earth the sun forgot, dark shadows linger,

Then on the threshold stands, white clad in candlelight,

Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!

Through the intercession of St. Lucy, the Holy Archangels and all the saints, it is our prayer that families receive hope and healing along with the means to move into their new home.

Maria Nash is a second-generation staff member of Raphael House. Her parents, Father Nicholas and Matuschka Barbara Letten, worked at this Raphael House in the 1970s. As live-in staff members, Maria and her husband, Isaac Nash, have a combined 14 years of service at this shelter. Isaac is a cook and Maria helps with foundation and corporate fund-raising efforts. The Raphael House address is 1065 Sutter St., San Francisco, CA 94109; tel (415) 474- 4621; web: Note there is another Raphael House in Portland, Oregon.